What Gets Published? The Line between Free Speech and Harm

Amanda Russell Beattie

Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, Aston University

Gemma Bird

Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Liverpool.

Patrycja Rozbicka

Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, Aston University

Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik

Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations / Deputy Director Aston Centre for Europe, Aston University

The International Relations community has this week been up in arms about the decision of Third World Quarterly to publish an opinion piece defending colonialism on economic grounds. This has led to a number of response pieces as well as a petition  asking the journal to rethink their editorial decision and remove the piece from publication. Subsequently this has led to further debates asking where the line exists between free speech and harm and whether or not this piece should be in the public domain. Moreover it raises key questions surrounding the agency of the academic and the privileges that come with excavating, and telling, the stories of others. Specifically, it demands a level of personal reflexivity, on the part of academics asking them to consider the moral and ethical responsibilities that emerge during the course of research design and knowledge production.  In short, can research outputs promote harm - both in the stories that are told but also, the stories that never come to light.

Feminist scholars have long been challenging the way in which stories are produced and told both within IR, but also the wider discipline of Social Sciences.  Jagger, as early as 1981 was raising serious questions about where, within stories, emotions might feature.  Carol Cohn (1989) has continued to ask questions about power relationships and gender in her work on the American military.  While more recently Ackerley and True (2008) have championed a role for self-reflexive methods in the process of research design.  All of these different approaches can be understood as a wider challenge to the influence of Western Enlightenment.  Indeed, as Hutchings (2015) notes in her work on Time and IR, there is a privileging of public, rational and objective knowledge production over the subjective, emotive and more personal. 

Collectively these challenges have motivated feminist scholars to produce alternative modes of being and knowing.  But this has not come without personal and professional costs. For example, at an institutional level, amongst UK publishers Sara Ahmed’s work On Being was rejected for being ‘too subjective’ suggesting that the factors being used for assessment are in some way grounded on an understanding of scientific rigour or a priori objective truth.  At an individual level choices surrounding what stories to tell, and which stories to omit, are likewise being made.  For example Malkki’s 1996 work on Rwandan exiles shows how stories that do not align with Western notions of humanitarianism, and rights more generally, are not allowed to be told.  She develops a concept of corporeal anonymity to bring this silence to light.  Hers is a decision to excavate and tell of a silencing. On the other hand, Mauthner (2000) tells of her decision not to tell the stories she has excavated.  Working on the theme of emotional experiences of sisterly bonds, she decides to omit what she learns for fear of harming her research subjects thereby enacting a personal form of reflexivity to attend to her responsibilities as a researcher. 

These scholarly examples lie outside the field of IR. Yet they reflect a need to ask important question: what is or isn’t publishable in the social sciences? To limit the personal, the subjective, and the individual is to diminish the pool of ideas to which we have access and limits in some way, human knowledge. And this is something that as a community IR must begin to negotiate. A cursory look at the comments on the change.org petition reveals that an inability to attend to the micro political not only silences some very important stories it also enacts harm. Many of the signatories explain their decision to support the petition goes beyond their responsibilities as researchers, and institutional obligations as academics. The comments reflect their own lived experiences that unfolded in a post-colonial context within which the structural inequality, privilege and harm of colonialism remains firmly entrenched. 

The field of IR has begun to attend to the Micro Political.  In 2016 Jackson and Stanley urged scholars to attend to the methodological elitism that informs research design in the hopes of excavating the lived experiences similar to those personal experiences that feature on the change.org petition.  It is a call which we ourselves heeded during our recent fieldwork along the Balkan Route in which we engaged with refugees, NGO’s, activists and volunteers. What we were struck by most of all was how most of our discussions focused around questions of narratives, of lived experience, of sights and sounds and smells that we and others experienced in the places we visited. It was this that we felt we needed to share immediately as we advanced on our journey, and this that we felt was missing from a lot of the work currently engaging with the questions of migration, refugees and crisis.

This knowledge is, by definition, subjective, semantic and grounded in emotions and vulnerability.  It is, by its very nature, a somatic form of knowledge production.  We felt that excavating this lived experience, while acknowledging our own subjective positioning within this unfolding project could contribute to a diversifying narrative in the ongoing refugee discussions.   As such we produced a number of blog posts that paid tribute to lived experiences, shared and singular, sensory data derived from sight, smell and feel, as well as embedded reflexive methods to pay tribute to our ethical responsibilities as researchers.  This type of writing that this commitment allows is a risky endeavour for academics.  It demands that the body be both producer of, and teller of, stories.  It actively challenges the enlightenment history outlined by Hutchings (2015) and is open to the challenges of navel-gazing faced by auto-ethnographic scholars (see for example Brigg & Bleiker 2010) So, it is not surprising to us that we have struggled to find outlets for the stories that we would like to be telling.

We hope to push the discussions of what should, and could, count as legitimate knowledge, further.  The controversial decision of Third World Quarterly’s editor to publish this article raises an important question not just of what does, but also, what does not get published.  Perhaps one emerging, and valuable strand, that this articulation of privilege might engender is the need for both objective and subjective stories within the academy.  What the change.org petition reveals is that when blended together objective institutional standards, combined with personal and emotional stories, provides a compelling case to query the status quo and ask others to take risks revealing the reflexive and the personal.  Perhaps it is time to reflect on what defines the value of academic knowledge, is it footfall and citations or the advancement of human knowledge and understanding?

In the hopes that it is the later, we suggest, in the spirit of those who have similarly made this challenge before, that there is a need to carve out space within the production of knowledge for the subjective, the personal and the emotional if the wider stories of being human, within the political, can emerge. This will require that those placed to make editorial decisions – blog editors, peer-reviewing colleagues, and researchers, take leaps of faith and confront their own assumptions and training.  A reflexive imagination, that incorporates the vulnerabilities of subjective knowledge production, will, we suggest, go a long way to furthering the discussion we hope to contribute to in writing this piece – what can, and does count, as legitimate knowledge within, and beyond, International Relations.

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